Being an ALT is like existing in a weird bubble where time is both constantly of the utmost importance and does not seem to exist at all. For many people it can feel like such a temporary position. Many of us come to Japan knowing that in a year or two we will be returning to our home countries and the lives we left behind. With the strict 5 year limit on the JET program, all JETs know that what we are doing here isn’t forever, even if some do plan to remain in Japan when their time with JET is finished. For those of us planning on leaving, it is easy for it to start feeling like it isn’t our real lives, being here and teaching in Japan.
It’s jarring, then, to realize just how much time is passing while I’m here in Japan. I arrived at 22, fresh out of 5 years of undergrad, and without even realizing the change was happening I’m now getting ready to leave as a fairly different person than who I was when I arrived. I’m really captivated by the different sensation of the passage of time as a temporary teacher in a foreign country. I think for some of us it can be hard to see this as what it is–a relatively long-term reality–when it feels more like just existing apart from time altogether.
I hesitate to use the example because we are here to work, but I think it’s easiest to explain this feeling like summer camp. While you’re there, you know that summer camp is temporary. You know that when the two weeks are over you will go back to your home and your life and all of the friends and family you have waiting for you. It gives your experience of the passage of time in camp a little tinge of the unreal. The two weeks spent having fun and living new experiences feels somehow set apart from the flow of reality experienced in your “real” life.
I feel similar about my time in Japan, and it’s dangerous. When you allow yourself as an ALT to give in to the feelings of unreality, it also deprives the time spent living and working and have a life in Japan of the meaning and value it deserves. It becomes too easy to say “This doesn’t matter because it isn’t my real life,” while sitting back and watching years of your “real life” pass you by. These two years are an experience set apart from my life before and after, but they are a very real two years.
While I’m here it is difficult to see how my two years in Japan will connect to my life in the future, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. At least that is what I’m telling myself when it is hard to see how these two years connect to the reality of before and after.
I think experiencing time is something I’m going to be writing about for a long time, and I guess if nothing else (though of course there is a lot more) the strange unreality of time in Japan has given me a lot more to think about.